Publication and endorsement
I mentioned in an earlier post how Robbie Franklin, owner of McFarland Publishers, advised me, when I was first getting Library Juice Press off the ground, to publish some conservative books along with liberal books, in order to show that I’m running a publishing house, not an advocacy group. I knew at that time that I would likely publish books that do not have a political point to make, and I definitely have begun to do that, but I saw no reason to follow his advice otherwise. I don’t see a need to establish “balance” as a publisher by publishing books that I don’t respect. I can imagine wanting to publish a book that could be called “conservative” in one or another sense of the word, but I can’t imagine wanting to publish a book of right wing views on librarianship, and see no reason to think that doing so would raise my stature as a publisher.
However, I have found that Robbie’s advice has forced me to reflect on the meaning of a publisher’s decision to publish a book.
Certainly, in a very basic sense, publishing a book means endorsing it. If I chose to publish a book I am making a statement about it – that I see fit to take a financial risk in putting this book into the marketplace, and that I am willing to attach my name to it as a publisher.
But endorsing a book is not necessarily the same as endorsing the ideas it contains.
For example, I will soon be publishing the memoirs of a now-deceased Philadelphia anarchist named Chaim Leib Weinberg, edited by Robert Helms. I am not an anarchist, and disagree with both Bob Helms’ and Chaim Weinberg’s views. However, I am happy to endorse the book. I’m happy to endorse Bob’s editorship of it and Weinberg’s original authorship of it. I’m happy to endorse both of them as people, because I respect them and the work that they did or continue to do. I disagree with them but respect them. So, in this sense, I am, as Robbie Franklin would see it, running a publishing house and not as advocacy house.
At the same time, an author might have views that make it impossible for me to endorse them or the books that they write. As well written and well argued as a book might be, I would be unwilling to publish it if what it said were simply beyond the pale to my way of thinking, because in publishing a book I am attaching my name to it.
An awkward situation came about a year or so ago concerning these issues. I had approached Roy Harris, founder of the Integrational school of linguistics, based on a tip that he was in need of a new publisher. I had familiarized myself with his ideas and was excited about what he has said within the field of linguistics. It seemed to me that what he has said about the study of language is very important – radical and necessary. He responded very favorably to my offer, but wanted to start our publishing partnership with a test run. He wanted me to publish a small book he has written about modern art. I read it and found that what it said was beyond the pale to my way of thinking, and as much as I respect and admire Dr. Harris’ work as a scholar of language, I could not bring myself to associate my press with his views on art. Harris castigated me for my decision, saying that he would not want to work with a publishing house that publishes books based on whether or not the publisher agrees with them.
Naturally that experience forced me to reflect and to recall Robbie Franklin’s advice. Was I approaching the business of publishing in a too-personal way? Should I be approaching my business in strictly business terms?
Having worried about it a bit, I am pretty sure that I am going about things the right way. It was not my disagreement with Dr. Harris’ views on art that led to my choice not to publish his book. It was a sense that I could not respect the argument that he was making. I would publish a book about art that drew conclusions that I didn’t agree with if I felt I had to respect the argument and had to respect the book. But I do not have the admiration for Dr. Harris’ book about art that I have for his works on language.
I think that distinction is not all there is to the question for me, however. As I have said before, Library Juice Press has a political identity as a publisher, and this is what Robbie Franklin directly advised me against. It is true that the largest publishers, and most of the academic presses as well, avoid being associated with any particular political views, factions, or even schools of thought. But anyone who is familiar with the publishing world and publishing history knows that very many important presses in the political arena are associated with particular viewpoints, and were often originally outgrowths of political parties or periodicals. (Examples would be Verso Books, International Publishers, and Monthly Review Press. Many other examples can be found in Byron Anderson’s Alternative Publishers of Books in North America, 6th Edition.) Political publishers are an important contributor to the written record, and to my view are not diminished by their political purposes.
As a publisher, my intention is to continue publishing books that come from a variety of Left perspectives (decidedly non-doctrinally) while also publishing books that are only indirectly political, or perhaps not political at all. If I publish a book that has a conservative aspect to it, it will be because I find good reasons to publish it. But I do not foresee publishing a conservative book in order to establish that I am approaching my role as a publisher in an impersonal, impartial, or strictly-business way, or to establish that my press has balance. I think that to do that would be artificial, not to mention self-compromising (for me personally and for the company). I think being somewhat circumscribed in this way is good in an existential sense and in a business sense as well. In both senses it means differentiation and identity.
So that’s a bit of my thinking about Library Juice Press and Litwin Books as I move further into a very busy year of book publishing. Feel free to share your thoughts with me.
5 comments on “Publication and endorsement”
I think you sorted this one out for yourself pretty well, Rory, and I really don’t have much of anything to add, other than, as a publisher, you have a right to publish or not publish whatever you darn well please, the hell with what anyone thinks of it.
I’m sorry to hear about the incident with Dr. Harris, but I wouldn’t take his criticism too seriously. You probably bruised his ego, but maybe it needed bruising. He will find another publisher, and you won’t have to publish an art book you can’t respect. Chalk it up as a win-win and move on. If you are ever in communication again, remind him that you still admire his linguistic work and would love to publish his scholarship in that area. Keep drumming up the positive.
In a certain sense, it is “just business”, and as a businessman you get to set the direction and tone of your publishing house, period. Writers that get their underwear in a twist over your business decisions can take their [insert optional disparaging adjectives here] manuscripts elsewhere. That’s the attitude you should take, I think.
If someone is writing outside their area of expertise, they don’t get to rely too much on their fame and reputation in another area to gloss over their shortcomings in other areas.
Another example you could think of would be Prometheus Books; Prometheus Books definitely publishes works with a certain political bent, most of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, but I usually know generally what to expect (and what NOT to expect) with a Prometheus Books title, and that’s a good thing, from a librarian’s POV re: collection development considerations.
I also think you’ve sorted it out well–and, let’s face it, very few library people are going to expect either Library Juice Press or Litwin Books to not have a perspective.
And it’s not as though there’s a shortage of distinctly conservative publishers…
You’ve done books (Slow Reading, e.g.) that make it clear you’re not *just* a political publisher, so I wouldn’t worry.
It seems to me you could make a fair argument that you are publishing a wide variety of views. The Left, God knows, is not what I would call a unified political entity.
Suggestion for next post:
“What makes an argument respectable?” : )
Well, Nathan, I might, but there are hardly any topics that have been written about more than that.
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